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Creative Hara-Kiri


Entrepreneurship and creativity have been passed down in my family like heirlooms. If there is genetic code for that sort of thing, the desire to build novel things is a festoon on my DNA. Just as a male praying mantis finds its mate and lemmings leave to explore the coastline, my notebooks fill with arcane drawings of games never played before.

I was familiar with commercial software development, but new to the commercial gaming industry. I decided to focus on the casual game market, where smaller budgets and the desire for novel games allow for more experimental titles. I visited a few publishers’ websites to learn what they were looking for in a game submission. In most cases, the tips they provided merely discussed the quality of submissions, but didn’t provide anything substantial about the game design or style. But I kept getting one vibe from everyone: They wanted to see something new.

With the publishers’ guidance in mind, I began developing my game. My experience in the field of software engineering provided me most of the tools I needed. My aesthetic ensured this was not some garish result of a free-time whimsy. My eye for quality kept it from becoming shambling machination, like those often created by energetic students. My drive to create something new flared, eschewing clones and derivatives of existing games. When I created the final build, I was ecstatic. I had simultaneously written a game by myself and invented a new type of game.

My game concept was fairly simple: I wanted to make a drawing game that graded players on the technical aspects of their drawings. Every single art game I could find was conceptually related to Pictionary, where stick figures are rewarded over drawings which involve more thought and realism. I wanted to make a game that helped expose the underlying rules of drawing in a challenging and non-embarrassing way. In effect, I wanted to make a game that would help people draw better by playing it. After some intensive programming, that’s precisely what I had. The next step: Find a publisher to unleash my creation on unsuspecting artists-to-be.

Though not a member of the industry yet, I was familiar with the four-step publication process: Go to a publisher, submit your game, get rejected, repeat. It’s a fairly simple cycle, and honestly, isn’t that bad if you don’t take the rejection personally. I steeled myself and tried to open a dialog with the publishers whose sites had offered me submission advice months before. I went through website after website, filling out contact forms and sending e-mails. The sites often said to wait a week to a month for a response.

The response (well, the lack thereof) I received was unexpected. Weeks passed, and my inbox was as barren as a desert. In most cases, the publishers I contacted didn’t even send an automated reply e-mail. I couldn’t even tell if my missive had been received.

A touch put-off, I decided to look a little deeper into this phenomenon. What I found was alarming: I quickly learned I wasn’t alone. On a few developer-focused sites, I started reading how other submissions went unacknowledged, too. “If after a month you haven’t heard anything … assume that we aren’t going to publish the title,” wrote one employee.

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It’s strange, from my viewpoint. Independent studios spend months writing games based on publishers’ suggestions. They submit the game on the publisher’s terms. In many cases, though not all, they are told to expect a response and feedback in a short amount of time. Instead, the majority of publishers opt to ignore developers they don’t know completely. That kind of response isn’t just unprofessional or rude, it’s insulting. Considering what some people do to create these submissions, it’s almost cruel. And this is an industry-wide phenomenon.

I pondered the situation for a few days. I thought about my interactions with these firms and their employees over the past months. Up until the point I wanted to get a game published they were polite, friendly and helpful. These weren’t some executive big-wigs who were dismissive of game studios. Something had gone awry.

I decided it was time to make some phone calls. In every case, the publisher hadn’t made its phone number available – unsurprising, given the types of calls they’d receive with a public number. But without industry contacts, I had to get technical. After a bit of computer wizardry, I managed to snatch a couple of numbers from the internet.

It took some convincing, but I was able to finally speak with a few producers. It turns out I had done some things very well from the beginning of the development process; my game was innovative and unique. Unfortunately, some of my mistakes during game submission prevented my game from coming to light.

My folly wasn’t that I had invented something new, but that I treated the fruits of my labor as an invention. A new invention has to be guarded closely, protected by an assortment of complicated legal agreements. From a publisher’s perspective, any legal agreement, even one as innocuous as a non-disclosure agreement, is a liability. God forbid there’s a patent involved. Patents can be risky for game publishers. Some publishers even fear a patent arms race, the hoarding of intellectual property over any minor invention, which could stifle creativity and destroy innovative game design.

And, since seeking a legal agreement delays the submission process and introduces risk for the publisher, they’re definitely not going to look at you if it’s your first pitch to them. But it’s a catch-22, because you have to be mindful of your intellectual property, and make sure the full game is not leaked to the public at large.

I remain bemused that an industry which eagerly seeks innovation cannot fully protect creativity early in the publication process. At this point, I am resigned to being treated less like an inventor and more like an author. But I find comfort knowing that so long as people have fun playing my game, my genetic imperative to create will be fulfilled.

Blake Schreurs is a web applications guru who starts projects outside of
his area of expertise, because he hasn’t learned to fear failure yet. He
writes in loving memory of his older brother, Brian.

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